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'I Fit In Right Here': A History Buff Leads Walking Tours Of Black Indianapolis

May 6, 2021
Originally published on May 6, 2021 4:04 pm

"This is like my favorite mural in the city!" exclaimed Sampson Levingston, admiring the black-and-white portraits of great Indianapolis jazzmen adorning the side of a downtown music store.

A hardcore history buff, Levingston decided to bring people together — during the height of protests over Black Lives Matter last summer — by leading outdoor walking tours of traditionally African American neighborhoods. His company, Through 2 Eyes, takes schoolkids, church groups, tourists and curious locals around Irvington, Martindale-Brightwood and other areas rich in local Black history.

Sampson Levingston, of Through2Eyes, runs walking tours focusing on Indianapolis' Black neighborhoods and history.
Neda Ulaby / NPR

Levingston loves his hometown, but he's aware of nicknames like "Indiana No Place" and "Naptown."

"People thought it was that boring," Levingston allowed during a recent tour of the Indiana Avenue district. "People would actually come downtown and shoot pigeons off light poles."

But Indiana Avenue was once a thriving hub of Black commerce and entertainment. The area was gutted by an interstate in the 1960s and '70s. Hundreds of historic buildings were destroyed, according to local news. But you can still see the former world headquarters of Madam C.J. Walker, said to be the first female self-made millionaire, who made and sold Black hair care products. And Indiana Avenue was rich in nightclubs frequented by the likes of J.J. Johnson, Wes Montgomery and Freddie Hubbard. (Levingston's Spotify list is right here. And Indiana Avenue itself was immortalized by musician Larry Ridley in this song.)

"You look through history books and you don't see too many Black people, so you're like, 'Where do I fit in?'" Levingston mused. "Then you learn about the Avenue and you're like – I fit in right here."

Levingston, a 26-year-old former NCAA Division I athlete, has always been a nerd when it comes to digging up stories of Indianapolis buildings and byways. He hangs out in archives for fun. But Levingston did not major in history. He was a wide receiver at Indiana State, and captain of his football team. "I took all the history electives I could," he says. "I'd even miss practice sometimes to sneak in another history elective."

Majoring in marketing helped Levingston learn how to spread the world about his walking tours. (He has an active Facebook page.) His Indiana Avenue tour included stops at the historic site of the Senate Avenue Y, once the country's largest Black YMCA. It was home to vital progressive community organizing in the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan were a dominant force in local politics. Then there's the grand, red brick Bethel AME Church near downtown's canal. It's a former stop on the Underground Railroad. And then, the city's brightly painted Black Lives Matter Mural, where the names of police violence victims are inscribed within each letter.

YouTube

"Michael Taylor's name actually appears on this mural four different times," Levingston says. That name is heavy with more recent history. Back in 1987, the 16-year-old Taylor was picked up on suspicion of car theft. He was shot in the head and killed while in the back of a police squad car. He was handcuffed at the time. Police claimed the teenager died by suicide.

In 1996, the city paid Taylor's mother millions of dollars in restitution. Part of this Indiana Avenue tour includes visiting Nancy Taylor. She does not talk about losing her son. Instead, from her flower-filled front yard, Taylor shares memories from her childhood.

"All up and down the Avenue we would walk and there were shops and little places where you would go and get cheeseburgers — Woody Burgers — and ice cream," she recalls. "It was just a real old-fashioned neighborhood."

When Taylor's son was killed, Sampson Levingston was not even born. His walking tours rose from a year of police violence, protests and the pandemic. There's a reason why they've been so popular, he says. "We need each other, like bad. More than we ever could've realized. We just miss that. We miss people. We miss being who we are. And who we are matters."

Levingston led his tours all through the cold Midwestern winter. Now he's leading them nearly every spring day. He's careful about keeping people apart and safe, outside in the fresh air — but in every other way, his tours are the opposite of social distancing.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

During the height of protests over Black Lives Matter last summer, a history buff in Indianapolis decided to bring people together by leading outdoor walking tours of African American neighborhoods. NPR's Neda Ulaby got her own tour and has this report.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Sampson Levingston is out all the time digging up stories of Indianapolis buildings and byways. His friends, he says, give him grief for never shutting up about local history.

SAMPSON LEVINGSTON: You love history so much, almost like you think about it all day. I'm like, I do.

ULABY: In college, Levingston did not major in history. He was an athlete, captain of his Division I football team.

LEVINGSTON: I took all the history electives that I could. I'd even miss practice sometimes to sneak in an extra history elective.

ULABY: It was his major in marketing that helped Levingston build his business leading tours.

LEVINGSTON: Now, that's our Capitol building, made out of Indiana limestone - Bedford, Ind., limestone capital of the world.

ULABY: This tour is really about other monuments, like the site of a historic African American community center active in the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan essentially ran the government.

LEVINGSTON: Senate Avenue YMCA was right here. It was once the largest Black YMCA in the country.

Finding these cool stories - Black history, women's history, Native American history, things that I wasn't told about when I was a kid. And it's school to discover them later on.

ULABY: On his tours, Levingston points out what used to be the world headquarters of the first female self-made millionaire. Madam C.J. Walker sold Black hair care products. And he plays music by great Indiana jazz men, like Freddie Hubbard, Wes Montgomery and Larry Ridley, who wrote a song called "Indiana Avenue."

LEVINGSTON: Indianapolis - they used to call it, like, India-no-place (ph). They used to call it Nap Town because it was that boring because they said there's nothing to do in Indianapolis after 6 p.m. People would actually come downtown and shoot pigeons off of light poles. Isn't that crazy?

ULABY: Before this neighborhood around Indiana Avenue was gutted by an interstate and many of its buildings destroyed, Levingston says it was a hub of Black entertainment and commerce.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEVINGSTON: You look through your history book, and you don't see too many Black people. So you're like, where do I fit in? And then you learn about the Avenue, and you're like, I fit in right here.

Now, this is our Black Lives Matter mural right here on Indiana Avenue. Have you guys seen this before yet?

ULABY: The words Black Lives Matter painted on the asphalt contain the names of victims of police violence.

LEVINGSTON: Michael Taylor's name actually appears on this mural four different times.

ULABY: Michael Taylor - he was 16 years old when he was shot in the head and killed while in the back of a squad car. Back in 1987, Indianapolis police, who'd picked up Taylor on suspicion of car theft, said the teenager committed suicide. He was handcuffed at the time. Part of Sampson Levingston's tour today is visiting Taylor's mom.

NANCY TAYLOR: I was born in 1954.

ULABY: Nancy Taylor, in a cheerful yellow shirt, greets visitors in her garden. She does not talk about losing her son. She shares memories from her childhood, when Indiana Avenue was filled with Black-owned businesses.

TAYLOR: All up and down the avenue, we would walk, and there were shops and little places where you would go get cheeseburgers and hamburger - Woody Burgers (ph).

ULABY: When Nancy Taylor's son was killed, Sampson Levingston was not even born. His walking tours came out of a year of police violence, protests and the pandemic. And he says there's a reason why they've been so popular.

LEVINGSTON: We need each other, like, bad, like, more than we ever could have realized, you know? And I think that we just missed that. We missed people. We miss being who we are, and who we are matters.

ULABY: Levingston is careful on his tours about masking and keeping apart. But in other ways, his tours are the opposite of social distancing. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.